Soundtrack Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Composed and Conducted by: John Williams

Nearly two decades after Indiana Jones literally rode into the sunset with Last Crusade, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas decided to revisit the franchise, a move with its fair share of controversy since Harrison Ford was noticeably much, much older. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has gotten mixed reviews, and is often cited as the worst movie in series. I have to agree that it’s the worst, but despite some serious flaws, especially its underwhelming last act, I think it’s an okay movie with some genuinely great scenes.

One of the most exciting aspects of Indiana Jones coming back was the return of John Williams, who at this point had just started to take it easier with his movie scoring schedule. As with his return to Star Wars, much time had elapsed since he scored Indiana Jones. Would his changed style of scoring affect how fun the score would be?

The main artifact theme, for the Crystal Skull, is virtually a reverse of the Ark of the Covenant theme. Instead of a series of descending three-note increments, it’s a repetition of ascending three notes, with a haunting melody to back it up. It’s not as powerful as the Ark theme, but it does manage to be very eerie, sometimes downright scary (check out “Oxley’s Dilemma”). There’s a great new theme for Irina Spalko and the Russian villains. “Irina’s Theme” is actually two themes in one. It’s not as militaristic as Williams’ themes for the Nazis in previous entries, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Irina’s theme is old school, while a secondary motif for the Russians in general is utilized in the action scenes.

Supposedly Shia Labeouf’s Mutt character has his own theme. There’s even a concert arrangement track called “The Adventures of Mutt”. I say this is “supposedly” a theme because in the film itself it only appears in “Jungle Chase” and the end credits suite. A lot of the music does fit the same style, a lot of light-hearted whirling and racing strings and woodwinds. The concert arrangement itself contains part of the Indiana Jones theme, suggesting a further link between him and the film’s main protagonist.

Several themes from the previous movies make their return, though these references are underrepresented on album. The most obvious is Marion’s theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is surprisingly underutilized despite her considerable presence in the film. One of the Grail themes from Last Crusade pops up a couple times, and the Ark theme makes two notable appearances in the opening sequence. As for the Indiana Jones theme itself, it is thankfully used frequently, but not to excess.

The album kicks off with “The Raiders March”, basically the end credits music from Raiders. Its presence is unfortunate. It seems to have been placed there for a nostalgia pop and just takes away space that could have been used for actual new music. Tracks 2 through 4 are concert arrangements of the new themes and motifs. “The Snake Pit” is the first of several light-hearted action cues. “The Spell of the Skull” starts off with the Ark of the Covenant theme and makes the first in-score reference to Irina’s theme. The rest of the track is tense suspense which isn’t terribly complex or thematic, but for some reason I really love it. “Journey to Akator” lifts part of Raiders’ “Escape from Peru” before delving into ethnic Latin American fare. “A Whirl Through Academe” is a scherzo from one of the film’s best scenes. “Return” is one of many tracks to focus heavily on the Crystal Skull theme.

“Jungle Chase” is the action highlight, reminiscent of “Desert Chase” and with plenty of references to the Irina and Mutt’s themes. “Grave Robbers” is an unusual foray into bone-rattling percussion, while tracks 13 through 15 feature dark exploration music. “Ants!” is a very interesting action cue, with a string march for a rather deadly swarm of ants backed by several of the themes. The beginning is notable for featuring string-plucking fragments of the Skull theme. “Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed”, like the scene it accompanies, is rather underwhelming despite its simulation of an alien choir and a loud final reference to Irina’s theme. “The Departure” is much better, building up to a grand fanfare at its conclusion. “Finale” starts off with Marion’s theme before the Indiana Jones theme plays in full followed by an end credits suite.

The fourth Indiana Jones score is a good entry, though the weakest. It’s just as not as fun a ride as the other scores, perhaps because of the abundance of dark suspense and exploration. To be fair, this can be chalked up to the album’s presentation, which leaves out large chunks of the more energetic action music. The worst omission is the rest of “Jungle Chase”, which had more of Marion’s theme and an interesting use of the Russians motif. I say this album is worth looking up and even buying, but be warned, the magic of the other scores doesn’t come in that much.

Final Rating: (score) 8/10 (album) 7/10

Tracklisting

  1. Raiders March (5:05)
  2. Call of the Crystal (3:49)
  3. The Adventures of Mutt (3:12)
  4. Irina’s Theme (2:26)
  5. The Snake Pit (3:15)
  6. The Spell of the Skull (4:24)
  7. The Journey to Akator (3:07)
  8. A Whirl Through Academe (3:33)
  9. Return (3:11)
  10. The Jungle Chase (4:21)
  11. Orellana’s Cradle (4:22)
  12. Grave Robbers (2:28)
  13. Hidden Treasure and the City of Gold (5:13)
  14. Secret Doors and Scorpions (2:17)
  15. Oxley’s Dilemma (4:46)
  16. Ants! (4:14)
  17. Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed (5:49)
  18. The Departure (2:26)

Soundtrack Review: Spectre

Composed and Conducted by: Thomas Newman

Spectre, as the title suggests, reintroduced the evil organization led by the cat-stroking Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Daniel Craig’s performance as 007 is even better, but the film is a mixed bag. It’s great for the first two-thirds, but gets mired by an attempt to link all of the Craig films together, as well as tying his origins to Spectre’s creation by Blofeld, an unnecessary move that wastes time and adds nothing. It’s not a terrible film, just an underwhelming one.

With Sam Mendes staying on for this film, it was inevitable that Thomas Newman would return too, making him only the third recurring composer after John Barry and David Arnold. Unfortunately, entire passages of music are recycled from Skyfall, though the album does focus on the more original material. For the third time the title song is not included on the soundtrack! This time it’s Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall”, which has good lyrics and fantastic music. Its main downfall is Smith’s singing voice, which gets way too high-pitched at points like he’s been kicked in the balls. Also, as with Adele’s “Skyfall”, Newman only uses the song once in his score, in an instrumental version that doesn’t even make full use of the melody. Perhaps there were production issues as with Skyfall that hindered him from utilizing it more.

The score itself starts off strong with “Los Muertos Vivos Estan”, a nice blend of the James Bond theme and percussion by Tambuco. Another early track, “Donna Lucia”, has some good romance material. But the album as a whole goes downhill from there. Newman’s score for Skyfall, while emphasizing atmosphere, had plenty of energy, interesting uses of the Bond theme, and even a few cues that sounded Bondish. The score here often seems to meander, focused on dreary atmosphere for long sections and much of the action material, especially from the film’s last act, being bland.

There is a more obvious use of motifs. The Bond’s Past theme from Newman’s other offering is given much more prominence, this time being used more generally. There’s  another theme for Bond, consisting of two-note increments of piano which gets consistent play as well. Madeleine has her own theme as well (in the track of the same name). It’s decent enough, though it doesn’t hold a candle to what Barry or Arnold would produce. The other motifs take a couple listens to recognize and aren’t memorable. They can often be confused with filler underscore. That’s the problem with the music for Spectre. Most of it isn’t memorable and passes by without the listener noticing. It can’t sustain its album length, which falls maybe twenty to thirty seconds short of filling out an entire CD.

There are decent, even good moments on this soundtrack, and Thomas Newman is a very talented composer. But it didn’t entertain me or sustain my interest, and it’s far too outside the musical style of the franchise and is emblematic of many of today’s bland action scores.

Rating: 4/10

Tracklisting

  1. Los Muertos Vivos Estan (with Tambuco) (2:48)
  2. Vauxhall Bridge (2:19)
  3. The Eternal City (4:34)
  4. Donna Lucia (2:03)
  5. A Place Without Mercy (1:04)
  6. Backfire (4:54)
  7. Crows Klinik (1:41)
  8. The Pale King (2:55)
  9. Madeleine (2:58)
  10. Kite in a Hurricane (2:09)
  11. Snow Plane (5:24)
  12. L’Americain (1:42)
  13. Secret Room (5:22)
  14. Hinx (1:21)
  15. Writing’s on the Wall – Instrumental (2:09)
  16. Silver Wraith (2:15)
  17. A Reunion (5:36)
  18. Day of the Dead (with Tambuco) (1:26)
  19. Tempus Fugit (1:21)
  20. Safe House (3:55)
  21. Blindfold (1:28)
  22. Careless (4:39)
  23. Detonation (3:53)
  24. Westminster Bridge (4:14)
  25. Out of Bullets (1:51)
  26. Spectre (5:36)

Soundtrack Review: Skyfall

Composed and Conducted by: Thomas Newman

The 50th anniversary for the James Bond film was marked by Skyfall, a rather good film that successfully meshed some of the old school tropes of the franchise with more recent sensibilities. It’s probably the most artistic entry in the franchise, especially when it comes to the lighting work. As it’s a Sam Mendes film, David Arnold was replaced by Mendes’ choice composer, Thomas Newman, a move which irked a few fans who had really been enjoying Arnold’s run.

Skyfall’s soundtrack has its fair share of difficulties regarding the song of the same name by Adele. First of all, it’s not on the actual soundtrack thanks to contractual issues, as was the case with “You Know My Name” from Casino Royale. Also, it was not completed in time for Newman to incorporate it into his score, which is a real shame because it’s one of the best songs, and features a strong, powerful tune. Newman did hold off on scoring one scene, just so there could be at least one reference. The track is “Komodo Dragon”, which plays the theme wonderfully before some atmospheric material and some Asian string music. It’s one of the best tracks and shows what could have been if there was more coordination in the music department.

Since the score is by Thomas Newman, it’s very atmospheric, quite a shift tonally for James Bond. He doesn’t jettison the style completely. The aforementioned “Komodo Dragon” and “Chimera” have the customary fanfares, and the itunes exclusive “Old Dog, New Tricks” sounds like it would fit in well with some of John Barry’s earlier scores with its lounge-style. The Bond theme itself is featured heavily, often in small snippets. Newman’s most notable use of the theme is the rhythmic string variation from the film’s climatic action (“She’s Mine”). It sounds like many current action scores, the one that pops to mind being the theme from Batman Begins.

Newman’s greatest weakness is a lack of themes. There are only two recurring ones I can distinguish on album besides the James Bond theme and some of the repeated action rhythms. The first is a sad little motif for Severine. The second is an eerie, atmospheric theme for Bond’s past (“Skyfall”, end of “Deep Water”), which is used much more frequently in the subsequent film Spectre.

There are nice tunes, just not actual themes. “New Digs” is an uplifting back-to-duty piece. “Chimera” has a loud fanfare at its start. “Mother” has a noble motif that does make a return in Spectre. One cool piece is “Shanghai Drive”, an electronic/percussion track that gets a variation in “Adrenaline”.

How much one likes the action music can determine how much one likes the score, as it takes up a lot of space. It does sound at times like Newman composed a really long action cue and then edited the pieces around to fit the scenes. Several tracks can’t really be told apart from each other without many listens. “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul” is one of the better tracks in this area. Since the Gunbarrel sequence was reserved for the end credits again, Newman takes the first two notes and places the right at the beginning to compensate. After some nondescript suspense music a raucous piece on electronic guitar and North African percussion ensues before a the James Bond theme makes it first sizeable appearance. “Bloody Shot” completes this cue, though it’s moved far later on the album.

How does Thomas Newman compare to David Arnold? He certainly lacks in the thematic department and his music is much more simple in construction, but it’s mostly enjoyable. The atmospheric material is good and I do like how Newman found a new way to use the James Bond theme. Maybe I just like the score a lot because I love the movie and it helps me relive it. I’ll give this one a good, but not great rating.

Rating: 7/10

Tracklisting

  1. Grand Bazaar, Istanbul (5:16)
  2. Voluntary Retirement (2:22)
  3. New Digs (2:32)
  4. Severine (1:20)
  5. Brave New World (1:50)
  6. Shanghai Drive (1:26)
  7. Jellyfish (3:22)
  8. Silhouette (0:56)
  9. Modigliani (1:05)
  10. Day Wasted (1:31)
  11. Quartermaster (4:58)
  12. Someone Usually Dies (2:29)
  13. Komodo Dragon (3:21)
  14. The Bloody Shot (4:46)
  15. Enjoying Death (1:13)
  16. The Chimera (1:58)
  17. Close Shave (1:32)
  18. Health & Safety (1:31)
  19. Granborough Road (2:34)
  20. Tennyson (2:14)
  21. Enquiry (2:50)
  22. Breadcrumbs (2:02)
  23. Skyfall (2:34)
  24. Kill Them First (2:22)
  25. Welcome to Scotland (3:21)
  26. She’s Mine (3:53)
  27. The Moors (2:40)
  28. Deep Water (5:11)
  29. Mother (1:41)
  30. Adrenaline (2:21)

Soundtrack Review: Quantum of Solace

Composed by: David Arnold

Conducted by: Nicholas Dodd

 

Following the successfully realistic take on James Bond in Casino Royale, Ian Craig found himself the star of a rejuvenated series. Quantum of Solace serves as a second half to Bond’s origin story and continues the grittier style of its predecessor. It’s possibly my least favorite film in the series, enslaved by modern action film conventions, the worst being the shaky cam which makes the action scenes unwatchable. The plot and the villains are uninspiring as well. There’s little to no memorability to the whole film.

 

Scoring Bond for the fifth time, David Arnold faced a similar obstacle when once again, as with Die Another Day, the title song was created without any input from him. “Another Way to Die” is a duet by Alicia Keys and Jack White. It’s a so-so song, and I personally don’t find it as horrible as nearly everyone else seems to believe. Unlike Madonna’s song from Die Another Day, there is at least some melody, but it features some un-Bondish wailing and voices that come across as a tad whiny at times. That being said, David Arnold does use pieces of it in his score, most notably towards the end of “Greene and Camille”, and the brief, but sexy “Field Trip”. However, while using bits of the song, Arnold also has his own six-note main theme (derived from the opening of a proposed song he made with none other than Shirley Bassey), a short piece introduced towards the end of “Time to Get Out”. As a result, his score has plenty of themes, but is not quite cohesive.

Most of the new themes are on the short and simple side, which does make them easy to insert. The main six-note theme is heard most clearly in “Talamone” and the beginning of “I Never Left”. Camille, the female lead, gets a simplistic ethnic woodwind motif. The theme for Quantum, the new evil organization which in a later film would be revealed as a wing of Spectre, has a mysterious quality. Its best appearance is “A Night at the Opera”, which can get a bit ethereal at times. It’s the best piece of score from one of the film’s few good scenes. There are several other motifs, but I won’t go into detail on them.

The James Bond theme is referenced frequently, but curiously never really gets an all-out playing. Perhaps David Arnold was pleased with how restrained he was with Casino Royale. One or two more full-on versions would have been welcome. Vesper’s theme actually returns for several tracks, once again on piano in “What’s Keeping You Awake” and “Camille’s Story”, and on strings in “Forgive Yourself”.

The action cues are competent, but none of them really reach the heights of Casino Royale’s “African Rundown” or “Miami International”. They also seem to get weaker as the album continues. The pre-title opener, “Time to Get Out”, is the strongest. It features an ominous build-up which enters into James Bond’s theme and a short action motif. The end is a statement of the six-note theme and a calm rendition of Bond’s theme.

“The Palio” is another exciting track and climaxes with the action motif from “Time to Get Out”. “Pursuit at Port au Prince” has the most electronics of the action cues, although the first half is mainly low underscore. It has a pretty cool ending where no less than three of the themes play one after another. “Target Terminated” has only one highlight, a bombastic version of the Quantum theme. Just like the finale it accompanies, “Perla De Las Dunas” is a major disappointment, featuring generic action bombast, though the second half with Camille’s dark woodwind theme and a few triumphant bars of the James Bond theme is pretty neat.

Quantum of Solace is a very solid score, but not as entertaining as Arnold’s other work in the series. The James Bond theme is a little underused and the only new theme that’s really strong is Quantum’s. David Arnold’s scores seem to do better when he’s able to work on the title song (or in Tomorrow Never Dies’ case, the end credits). Overall, it’s a good, competent score hampered by a paucity of full-fledged themes.

 

Rating: 7/10

 

Tracklisting

  1. Time to Get Out (3:28)
  2. The Palio (4:59)
  3. Inside Man (0:38)
  4. Bond in Haiti (0:35)
  5. Somebody Wants to Kill You (2:17)
  6. Greene and Camille (2 :13)
  7. Pursuit at Port Au Prince (5:58)
  8. No Interest in Dominic Greene (2:44)
  9. Night at the Opera (3:02)
  10. Restrict Bond’s Movements (1:31)
  11. Talamone (0:34)
  12. What’s Keeping You Awake (1:40)
  13. Bolivian Taxi Ride (0:49)
  14. Field Trip (0:41)
  15. Forgive Yourself (2:26)
  16. DC3 (1:15)
  17. Target Terminated (3:53)
  18. Camille’s Story (3:58)
  19. Oil Fields (2:29)
  20. Have You Ever Killed Someone? (1:32)
  21. Perla De Las Dunas (8:07)
  22. The Dead Don’t Care About Vengeance (1:14)
  23. I Never Left (0:41)
  24. Another Way to Die (sung by Alicia Keyes & Jack White) (4:23)